QUEBEC CITY — The government of Quebec is allowing Catholic day-care centers to celebrate Christmas — but not to speak about the birth of Christ.

Christmas trees are fine, but no stars. Moses in the basket is okay, but no Mount Sinai encounter with God.

Those restrictions, complains a coalition of Jewish and Catholic parents, are the hair-splitting implications of new regulations imposed by the government of Quebec on the once very Catholic province’s subsidized day-care centers.

About 50 such centers with religious affiliations are suing the government, calling the new regulations unconstitutional.

“We feel day care is an extension of the family,” said Sandy Jesion, the co-chair of the Catholic and Jewish parents’ group Quebeckers for Equal Rights to Subsidized Day Cares. “It is there so that children can learn the values we teach them at home.”

Quebec’s Family and Children Minister Yolande James said people like Jesion are still free to send their children to religious day cares, but such centers can’t get the province’s generous $40-per-day-per-child subsidy, provided since 1999, with parents paying just $7 a day per child.

“Society has accepted that the teaching of religion is not in the public-school system, and the same principle is applicable here in the subsidized day-care system,” James said last week.

Jesion said the lawsuit by the coalition of Jewish and Catholic day-care associations and individual parents claims that the new regulations discriminate on the basis of religion. “They are denying subsidies to parents on the basis of their beliefs,” he said. “That violates both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights.”

Many cultures teach of a universal flood, Jesion noted, “but in our day cares, if we talk about Noah’s Ark, we must leave out God. I attended my daughter’s day care on ‘Daddy Day,’ which was the day these rules came into effect, and when snacks were handed out, the teacher said, ‘Normally we would thank God for the food now, but we can’t anymore.’ Meanwhile, at the Catholic day cares, they can celebrate Christmas but cannot talk about the birth of Jesus.”

The regulations allow cultural expressions of religion (such as the aforementioned Christmas trees), but no religious practices or teaching. The government announced the rules last year in an apparent response to news reports that ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim day-care centers that taught explicit dogma were receiving the government subsidies.

Severe Repression

Diane Joyal, president of the Quebec Catholic Parents Association, said the regulations were “a more severe repression of religion than even in the schools.”

Quebec’s public schools teach ethics and religion but in a way that is “relativistic, agnostic and secularist,” according to Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian studies at McGill University.

The public-school curriculum assigns all religions equal value and equates U.S. civil- rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with Canada’s pioneer abortionist Henry Morgantaler.

Joyal notes that 7,000 Quebeckers signed a petition in opposition to the new regulations and in support of the idea that “children are the children of their parents and not of the state.”

Jesion says the Quebec regulations go further than in any other province. “Quebec is a one-off province in many respects,” he added.

Indeed, social scientists see Quebec, once Canada’s most religiously observant province, as its least religious today, with the lowest level of weekly church attendance. For example, in 2000, the national census reported 25% of Quebeckers attending church weekly versus 32% of Canadians overall. That same year, sociologist Reginald Bibby reported a much sharper gap between Catholic young adults in Quebec and the rest of Canada, with only 5% of those from Quebec attending weekly compared to 18% of those from the rest of Canada.

Religious Monopoly

Bibby says Quebec’s sharp decline in religious observance matches Europe’s, while that of “English” Canada is much closer to the more moderate decline of the United States. The prevailing explanation is that, while the United States has long enjoyed a free market in religion, both Europeans and Quebeckers are reacting against centuries of state-supported religious monopolies. In Quebec this came to an end abruptly in 1960 with the so-called “Quiet Revolution” and the defeat of the Church-backed Union Nationale party. The anti-clerical Liberal Party swept into office and began the process of secularization.

Elsewhere in Canada, state-supported religious schools are still common. In British Columbia, by contrast, partial financial support for denominational schools was introduced in 1986 and still enjoys widespread public support, despite religious attendance as low as Quebec’s. Alberta, Canada’s richest province, and Ontario, its largest, provide 100% financial support for Catholic school systems and partial funding for other denominations, though not without controversy.

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.